“The Clear and Present Danger” of Donald Trump

Yesterday marked the third day of eight public hearings planned by the House Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 Attack. The idea that former President Donald Trump remains a danger to American democracy was one of the main themes.

  • Plus, a forgotten Watergate history lesson

Guests: Margaret Talev and Russell Contreras of Axios

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Lydia McMullen-Laird, and Alex Sugiura. The music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can send questions, comments, and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice message at 202-918-4893.

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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios today! It’s Friday, June 17. I’m Niala Boodhoo. Here’s what you need to know today: a forgotten Watergate history lesson. But first, today’s big deal: why the January 6 panel says Trump remains a threat to democracy. If you liked “the threat to democracy is not over” more, go ahead

J. MICHAEL LUTTIG: Still, Donald Trump and his allies and supporters are a clear and present danger to American democracy.

NIALA: That’s retired Republican Justice J. Michael Luttig as part of the third day of eight planned House Select Committee public hearings on January 6. That idea, that Donald Trump remains a danger to American democracy, was just one of the main topics yesterday. Margaret Talev from Axios joins us as she does most Fridays for her political analysis. Hi Margie or Hello Margarite.

MARGARET: Hi Niala! That sentence that Judge Luttig said about clear and present danger is very interesting for a couple of reasons. I think most of us hear that expression, think of that Harrison Ford movie, but what is really a clear and present danger is a test of when the Supreme Court can violate the first amendment, right? What are the limits of the first amendment? Does the limit under the first amendment in this case to overthrow an election, a valid election result. So I think that while it sounds like a catchphrase, Judge Luttig is actually getting to something bigger here. And that’s what the panel is trying to get at. It is the question of criminality or criminal culpability, if any of this is actionable for the former president or for the advisers close to him who said yes, go ahead. Let’s see if you can stay in the presidency.

NIALA: We heard from a lot of Republicans yesterday, including the Vice President, Mike Pence’s chief of staff, and a lot of lawyers. What did they establish when it comes to former President Trump’s attempt to get Mike Pence to overturn these election results?

MARGARET: Niala in, testimony after testimony and this included live testimony as well as some of the tape depositions that we saw, we constantly heard two patterns and one was everyone else around the former president saying, what John Eastman is saying. you are not true. It’s not exact. It is not an actual legal theory. There is no historical precedent eh, for this, there is no legal basis for this. It’s not a real thing that you lost the election.

NIALA: Until that point. Here is former Trump White House counsel Eric Herschmann describing a conversation he had with Eastman.

ERIC HERSCHMANN: I told him, are you out of your F in mind? I said, I said, I just want to hear two words come out of your mouth for now: orderly transition.

NIALA: Margaret, I read something yesterday that the witness list for the hearing was like a meeting of the Federalist Society. There were so many different Republicans who testified in this really damaging testimony, indicting President Trump.

MARGARET: It’s very true. I mean, look Niala, when you think about it, these aren’t Democrats, uh, advising Mike Pence or Democrats condemning what the former president and John Eastman tried to do. These are conservative Republicans with conservative legal backgrounds who are deeply critical of and disagree with what former President Trump and John Eastman tried to do. And, when we really start to think about the way they were all connected, your mind spins, there’s Justice, Clarence Thomas, who’s married to Ginny Thomas. Who is a conservative activist and deeply involved with the Federalist Society. Ginny Thomas is talking to John Eastman, this conservative lawyer, who is advising Donald Trump on the theory that has no legal precedent. Then John Eastman is also talking to Mike Pence. But don’t forget that John Eastman also clerked for two very important people: Judge Luttig and Clarence Thomas. And, by the way, so did a guy named John Wood, one of the attorneys who led the cross-examination at the hearing, and who had also been secretary to both Mike Luttig and Clarence Thomas. So the people we’re talking about here, the people who disagree with John Eastman and Donald Trump, are conservatives. Republicans, but they are deeply, deeply uncomfortable with what the former president was trying to do. Deeply uncomfortable that they were being pressured to disarm, and deeply uncomfortable with the implications this could have for American democracy, both in 2020 and beyond.

NIALA: But Margaret, the reality is what do the polls say when we look at Republicans in this country and what they believe about the 2020 election and the role of President Trump on January 6?

MARGARET: NBC did a poll recently that pretty much says it all. What NBC found is that time has been on President Trump’s side when it comes to how Americans perceive and hold responsibility for those attacks. Uh, the latest number is the 45% of Americans who now say the former president was solely or primarily responsible for the attack. And look at the divisions in these numbers. When you look at just Republicans, it’s down to 9%. 9% of Republicans say they hold the former president primarily responsible for that attack.

NIALA: This false claim that the election was stolen is also actually a centerpiece of many Republican political candidates and campaigns this year in 2022.

MARGARET: Republican primaries are filled with contests between two Republican candidates trying to one-up each other by showing how aligned they are with the former president, or contests in the primaries between what might be considered a more traditional Republican, someone who says something like “it’s time to move on beyond 2020,” or believe the choice was legitimate. And the candidates who continue to repeat President Trump’s lies about the election. And the Washington Post has reported, in recent days, that by its count, at least 108 candidates, either in state office or for Congress, who have aligned themselves with President Trump’s lies, have advanced on the ballot.

NIALA: Margaret Talev is Axios’ editorial director for the White House and politics. Thank you Margaret.

MARGARET: Thank you Niala.

NIALA: In a moment, we’ll be back with a piece of Watergate history: the Cuban-American thieves behind the infamous robbery.

NIALA: Today is the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in that led to the fall of President Richard Nixon. You are going to hear a lot of anecdotes and stories about this this weekend, but the story of three Latinos on an anti-communist crusade who WERE PART OF THE GROUP THAT carried out the robbery is not yet known by many. That’s why I asked Russ Contreras, our Forgotten History correspondent, to share the story.

RUSSELL CONTRERAS: Hey, thanks, Niala. These Latinos broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters and were trying to find information linking Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern to Fidel Castro. They were then arrested when they were caught breaking in, and this started the whole scandal that led to the downfall of Richard Nixon.

Each of these men served around 15 months in prison and they believe they were on a higher crusade. Years later, they would say they have no regrets about Watergate, but among Cuban-Americans, these people were seen as heroes. But, the large Latino population that was mostly Mexican-American at the time, as it is today, did not see them as heroes. They opposed Nixon from his policies on the Vietnam War to the fight against Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, who participated in a major boycott against Nixon. Nixon opposed that boycott and actually bought grapes and shipped them to soldiers in the Vietnam War. So this was the beginning of the divisions that existed between Cuban Americans and Mexican Americans that still exist today.

NIALA: Axios Today’s forgotten history correspondent, Russ Contreras. Thanks Russ.

RUSS: Thanks for having me.

NIALA: We have Monday off for the holidays on June 16, but we’re producing an additional episode this weekend for our Hard Truths series. That’s our series on systemic racism, and this year we’re focusing on solutions.

We will talk about housing, specifically, evictions. We’re focusing on Philadelphia, where, in part due to a new eviction diversion program there, about 90% of potential evictions were averted in the first year of the program. Residents like Mafieyah Robinson.

MIFIEYAH ROBINSON: I never seemed to catch up and was always, you know, falling short. So, she allowed me to give myself some time to make some money, to save some money so I could start over.

NIALA: That comes out tomorrow on the Axios Today feed.

And that’s it for us this week: Axios Today is produced by Nuria Márquez Martínez and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Our sound engineers are Alex Sugiura and Ben O’Brien. Alexandra Botti is our supervising producer. Sara Kehaulani Goo is the editor-in-chief of Axios. And a special thanks, as always, to Axios co-founder Mike Allen.

I’m Niala Boodhoo, thanks for listening. Stay safe and see you here on Monday.

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